A Fair Trial For Oswald? Two Warren Commission Members Speak at CMLAA's JFK Assassination Event

Posted 2013-12-16 3:11pm

Judge Brendan Sheehan (center) moderates as Warren Commission members Judge Burt W. Griffin (left) and Howard Willens (right) discuss the inner workings of the commission.

Could Lee Harvey Oswald have received a fair trial in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and what legal implications would have been faced in obtaining a conviction?

Those issues, along with evidence Oswald's guilt in assassinating President Kennedy, were key topics discussed during Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law's sold-out December 6 event, "JFK’s Assassination and the Law: 50 Years Later," sponsored by the Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association. Highlighting the eight-member panel of legal experts were Judge Burt W. Griffin and Howard Willens, two staff members of the Warren Commission.

Judge Griffin's and Willens' talk centered on the establishment and inner workings of the Warren Commission, and the commission's findings.  Willens, second in command of the Warren Commission’s staff, spoke on the process of the investigation, including the tenuous relationship between the commission and government agencies, including the FBI.  Judge Griffin, assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, explained his involvement in the investigation, and provided details about Oswald assassin Jack Ruby.  Both men are confident in the commission's finding that Oswald acted alone. 

"No one with the Warren commission staff had any doubt then or now about the credibility of the commission's findings," said Willens.  Judge Griffin explained further, "If I could have found a conspiracy, I would have eventually become senator of Ohio, so there was plenty of motivation (to find one)."

Judge Brendan Sheehan (moderator), Judge C. Ellen Connally, Steven Dever, Jerome Emoff, Magistrate William Vodrey and professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich also spoke during the all-day event.  The panelists provided background information on Oswald and the assassination, detailed the challenges of a hypothetical trial for Oswald, and examined how such a trial may have affected the evolution of constitutional and interrogation law.   

Prior to President Kennedy's death, assassinating a president was not a federal crime, meaning the case would have been tried in Dallas as local officials preferred.  Oswald's murder changed the dynamics of the case, and led the establishment of the Warren Commission as the ultimate authority on the assassination, in lieu of criminal proceedings.

"The commission was more effective than a trial because it was not held to the restrictions of a court case for seeking evidence," said Willens.

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